Introducing Visual Design to UX

A Review of The Information Design Handbook by Jenn & Ken Visocky O’Grady

When you are a UX Team of One on a fast moving Agile development team, you learn pretty quickly that you have to be fairly explicit with your design. While low fidelity sketchy designs can go a great way towards helping with early concept testing, they don’t actually get the product to a point where it shines. To really put the visual shine, the patina of quality, into a product requires good visual design. And, if you are the only UX person on your team, that means you have to do the low fidelity and the high fidelity prototyping; it means that you have to get good with visual design.

When I graduated I had little idea of how much I was going to have to grow my visual design skills. I knew how to prototype, how to code, how to do user testing, how to do usability testing… I knew it all really really well. Except, that is, visual design. I just hadn’t dedicated myself to that sub-field thinking that when I finally got out to the “real world” there would of course be a plethora of visual designers to work with. I could just be paired with someone who understands this delicate work and I wouldn’t have to worry about it. Ahhh, how naive I was.

So with the nice kick in the pants from reality, I had to get good at visual design quickly. I wont bore you with the details, but if you could do a quick Rocky montage with the Eye of the Tiger playing in the background while picturing me: 1. discovering dribbble. 2. working in the evenings to recreate styles that I liked. 3. practicing redesigning websites that were rubbish in new color palettes. 4. challenging myself every day to design a new 20 x 20 pixel icon for a vague concept. Then, you would have a good idea how I buffed up my skills.

This is a pretty long intro to get to the part where I talk about a book, isn’t it?

So while I was doing all of that design work, I also read the Information Design Handbook by Jenn & Ken Visocky O’Grady. This book helped take a whole lot of concepts I had learned in school and make them come together. This book is the nicest and most visually appealing love letter to UX professionals. It asks, “would you please take the profession of visual design seriously,” in the kindest, most gentle way. It is so kind that it makes me not get grumpy at the fact that it is called “Information Design.” Because, if I were to accurately name this book it would be something like, ‘How to Apply Visual Design to Information.” This is mostly because when you use terms like ‘Information Design,’ it is really easy to get that concept wrapped up with the term ‘Information Architecture.’ Information Architecture is a kind of Information Design, but it isn’t addressed in this book.

I’ll go ahead and reiterate the definition of Information Design that authors cite from Frank Thissen:

Information design is about the clear and effective presentation of information. It involves a multi-and interdisciplinary approach to communication, combining skills from graphic design, technical and non-technical authoring, psychology, communication theory, and cultural studies.

So with that definition in mind, this book gives a good intro to the concept of information design and why it is important, but the meat of the book is in Chapters 4, 5, and 6: Cognitive, Communication, and Aesthetic Principles for Information Design. These chapters should be taught in every intro to UX class that is out there. If you just have time for these three chapters, you are already doing yourself a favor. However, the book’s last three chapters, which present case studies, are also interesting (if a bit more boring… for me).

The best part of this book is just how visually stimulating it is. Every page has beautiful colors, is typeset beautifully, and has fun visual examples. This book is the perfect reification of the topic. I mean, for Pete’s sake, the cover is table of contents and you don’t even really pay attention to that fact (initially) because it is so flippin’ beautiful. The balance of the book between facts and examples, the interplay colors and text, it makes the book a delight to read. Even if you are the best visual designer on the planet, I think everyone could learn a bit about how to create an engaging UX experience by giving this book a read.

To return to my story above, this book helped me round out my skill set. I had the background to understand the value of psychological principles like “proximity” but this book helped show that there are visual nuances to proximity as well. It helped make those concepts more real. It helped me make my UIs and to be a better UXer.

Book Club Questions

  1. How did you buff up in areas of UX that you didn’t have expertise in?
  2. How does your knowledge of “information design” help make you a better designer?
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